With the apparently imminent announcement that Joe Tapine will be staying at the Milk, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. An elite talent has been retained, and it means the job of filling out the roster takes on a different hue. But the Raiders have tasks ahead and gaps that need filling. It’s not as simple as heading to the market and buying the fattest pig. Canberra have always operated in a space different to much of the competition in free agency, and they’ll have their hands full in finding the people they need.
Just what Canberra can do for next year requires a bit of thought (and if you are after some unnecessarily in-depth thoughts boy have you come to the right place). By my count the Raiders have four positions available in their top 30 (based on this list). Out go Adam Elliott, Josh Hodgson, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Harry Rushton, Ryan Sutton, and Sam Williams. In come Ata Mariota, Zac Woolford and the recent signature of Pasami Saulo. I would think conservatively $1.5m has come off the cap for next year, and while Tapine’s extension doesn’t kick in until 2024, upgrades to James Schiller, Mariota, Woolford and Xavier Savage may be eating into that. That means the Green Machine’s summer is more about filling out the edges of the roster rather than big game fishing. If you’re trying to fill four spots at around average NRL wage you’re not playing in the top end.
Of course, that’s inevitably the way. Canberra has almost never been a big player in the free agency market. Its best work is almost always done at the margins, and the hope again this summer is to snap up those not currently in the sights of other clubs. This means retaining young talent, finding high-upside risks in free agency, or veterans in search of one last paycheck. Young talent is easy. The Raiders get it before it becomes expensive, turn it into something big and hope to hang on. Tapine is an example of that working out best. High-upside risks include players like Adam Elliott, whom the Milk rehabilitated only for another club with suspicious amounts of money to throw around to snap him up. Veterans in search of a last paycheck – like Ryan James, Jeff Lima or Frank Paul Nu’uausala – are generally more important culturally than on field, but that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable when you get a good one. Just look at Sia Soliola.
So there are three broad typologies of players the Raiders will get and four positions available to fill. What should they be after?
The Raiders have struck a diamond in the rough in Zac Woolford. He gives top service, and his connection with Josh Papalii close to the line, and Joe Tapine more generally, is just delightful to see. He’s not the runner than Tom Starling is – who is – but it makes them complementary as a pair, allowing Stuart to mix and match as the game demands. Woolford has generally played around forty minutes a game, and while an actual pre-season with the club will allow him to build the physqiue and fitness to go longer, it’s unusual in the modern game for one player to man the middle for the full 80 minutes. Tom Starling continues to develop as a passer, but it’s clear for now that his primary skill is running. Down the development pathway Stanley Iongi awaits, but for right now there’s a spot open for a player that can play alongside Woolford or Starling, depending on the demands of the week.
Good thing Adrian Trevilyan is already at the club. Everything has been suspiciously quiet about his contract, which worries me. He wasn’t officially a top 30 player last year, nor on a development contract from what I could tell. I’ve said before that I think of all the Canberra options at nine that he has the most upside but the longer his status remains unclear, the more I fear I’m the only person that thinks that. Given he was injured a lot in 2022 I’d hardly expect the club to roll out the big deals and red carpets, but he’d be a cheap option that would allow it to spend money elsewhere.
Update: welp, turns out it was Danny Levi!
Outside back upside
Again, this is less about hunting in free agency and more about making sure the Milk are appropriately managing the edges of their roster to make sure they’re ready to play a bigger part. Harley Smith-Shields is on the free market as of 1 November this year, and like they did with a host of names that would have been available at that point (Tapine, Savage, Schiller, Morkos), the Raiders need to make sure he’s with the club in the long term.
If the Milk keep Harley at the club their outside back shopping is effectively done without having to fill an additional spot in their top 30. In a perfect world Timoko and Smith-Shields will the club’s long term centre pairing. Seb Kris and Jarrod Croker can and will both push for the starting left centre spot when healthy, and Kris in particular is a perfect back-up plan who can fill other roles too. All that is left then is to replace Jordan Rapana at wing (when his time comes). Both Albert Hopoate and James Schiller have shown an aptitude at that, and with Elijah Anderson also waiting in the wings, the Raiders don’t actually need to spend big on the market if they keep Smith-Shields. One of these needs to also be prepared as Savage’s backup at fullback.
To this point we’ve been suggesting filling roles through internal promotion. There’s always a risk of rating your own youth too highly just because they’re there, and they’re new. So it’s worth keeping that in mind.
Speaking of ‘in-house’ talent, it’ll be interesting to know how the club approach Elliott Whitehead’s role on the right edge going forward. Whitehead was on a hiding to nothing this year. He prepared all off-season for a different set of physical demands playing in the middle, and was shifted back to the edge about a third of the way through the season. A combination of this, and general ageing no doubt slowed his roll, but then his performance in the final against Melbourne was as good as he’s played in years.
My guess is he gets first shot at 12 next year. But Canberra will need a ‘next’ plan. Corey Harawira-Naera is obviously an option, but he may be needed elsewhere (see ‘lock’ below) and if he is the preferred solution at edge it creates another gap elsewhere. There are not many options on the roster that clearly can fill the right -edge spot, let alone that of Hudson Young if god help me I’m not writing that.
There’s not a lot on the market that is obvious enough for an idiot like me to see. The Raiders had been part of the Eli Katoa sweepstakes late in the season but missed out when he chose Melbourne. He’ll be great there and I’m already annoyed. Jackson Topine (Bulldogs) was another talent they may have been able to snare but he’s extended his time at Belmore recently. Former Raider Jack Murchie is off contract but word is he’s heading to the Dragons. Lachlan Fitzgibbon from the knights may been for a new home given that Adam Elliott and Jack Hetherington both signed new deals at the club, and he has a player option for 2023 he may choose not to pick up if the Milk make an offer.
Given that, Canberra may be forced to subsist in 2023 with what they have on the roster. They also have Clay Webb and Trey Mooney in the pipeline, but Webb feels a bit away to me, and Mooney more suited to a mobile middle role. I wouldn’t be surprised if the club finds another option I haven’t listed above, because the depth at the position is light.
Adam Elliott played an important role for the Milk in 2022, offering pace, passing and agility through the middle third. In defence he could match it physically with the biggest players while testing them with his feet and his ball-playing in attack. Alas he is off to other pastures (not greener because by definition there is no greener) and Canberra are in search of a player than can fill this role.
They have no perfect solution. Corey Horsburgh is big and agile but is definitely a prop, as opposed to a more mobile lock. If Elliott Whitehead becomes a middle it’ll be because he can happily pass through the middle but not because he’s got anything approaching the agility of what Adam Elliott offered. Corey Harawira-Naera may be needed on an edge, and is probably the best ‘flexibility’ option off the bench in the Raiders squad. Either way neither of these options is worth 80 minutes in the middle. Pasami Saulo is mobile, but from my limited viewing it’s as a rangy forward than a ball-paying middle. Trey Mooney definitely projects as a mobile middle forward with more creativity and upside so high it tried to microwave a burrito so hot that Jesus himself couldn’t eat it, but he’s played less than twenty minutes of first grade, so expecting him to go from that to every game minute-eater seems silly. After that any other solution is essentially Canberra just playing three props instead of two. Which feels so 2012.
None of those solutions is ideal, but unfortunately the ideal solution walked out the door. I’m really curious how the Raiders approach this. Last year they cycled through options after plan A – Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead – fell part under injury and the pressure of early season failure. At the moment the options are relatively limited. I’ll be watching to see what sort of flexibility Don Furner can find at the edge of other team’s rosters.
At the moment the Raiders have three options at middle forward that are ‘sure things’ – Corey Horsburgh, Joe Tapine and Josh Papalii. After that it’s youth and questions. Emre Guler was in and out of the side last year. Ata Mariota and Trey Mooney barely sniffed first grade, Peter Hola didn’t. Pasami Saulo got through ten games in first grade for the Knights in his best year to date, but most games he only got 30 odd minutes. There’s plenty of potential in that group – I think Ata Mariota and Trey Mooney are going to be very good footballers – but none of that is certain.
Can the Raiders find a prop that can happily give them 30 odd minutes a night while they work out if the youth movement is up to the battle? As we noted earlier, the Milk have gone to this well before with mixed results. There’s plenty of old timers in search of another year in the league – James Tamou is an obvious example, and Jordan McLean is another (though likely staying at the Cows) – but the key is finding the one with enough juice in their legs to get through the minutes that Canberra may need.
All of these solutions are low-cost. There’s no stars available for the Milk but they still need to find some critical solutions. It will be a test of Coach Stuart and Don Furner, who are presumably doing this without the help of a dedicated list manager.
Oh, that’s one more thing they need.
Update: not anymore. Joel Carbone is your man.
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